de·​tain | \ di-ˈtān How to pronounce detain (audio) , dē- \
detained; detaining; detains

Definition of detain

transitive verb

1 : to hold or keep in or as if in custody detained by the police for questioning
2 obsolete : to keep back (something due) : withhold
3 : to restrain especially from proceeding was detained by a flat tire

Other Words from detain

detainment \ di-​ˈtān-​mənt How to pronounce detain (audio) , dē-​ \ noun

Choose the Right Synonym for detain

keep, retain, detain, withhold, reserve mean to hold in one's possession or under one's control. keep may suggest a holding securely in one's possession, custody, or control. keep this while I'm gone retain implies continued keeping, especially against threatened seizure or forced loss. managed to retain their dignity even in poverty detain suggests a delay in letting go. detained them for questioning withhold implies restraint in letting go or a refusal to let go. withheld information from the authorities reserve suggests a keeping in store for future use. reserve some of your energy for the last mile

delay, retard, slow, slacken, detain mean to cause to be late or behind in movement or progress. delay implies a holding back, usually by interference, from completion or arrival. bad weather delayed our arrival retard suggests reduction of speed without actual stopping. language barriers retarded their progress slow and slacken also imply a reduction of speed, slow often suggesting deliberate intention medication slowed the patient's heart rate , slacken an easing up or relaxing of power or effort. on hot days runners slacken their pace detain implies a holding back beyond a reasonable or appointed time. unexpected business had detained her

Examples of detain in a Sentence

They were detained by the police for questioning. He claimed he had been illegally detained. Unexpected business had detained her.
Recent Examples on the Web Clemmons was off duty at the time of the arrest and doing a ride-along with Fisher when Fisher was called to help detain Gonzalez. Andres Picon, San Francisco Chronicle, 4 May 2022 And if the government lacks sufficient capacity to detain migrants, it is effectively required to continue Remain in Mexico. The Editorial Board, WSJ, 25 Apr. 2022 The change to the penal code comes amid a state of emergency that has allowed security forces to detain civilians, without evidence, under suspicion for being involved in a gang. Bryan Avelar,, 6 Apr. 2022 And if the police came for her mother—Russian police have been known to detain parents and siblings of activists—then would people please feed the cats? Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 2 Mar. 2022 Under the state of emergency, Mr. Abiy has sweeping powers to arrest and detain critics, impose curfews and restrict the news media. New York Times, 2 Nov. 2021 But under a new Biden administration policy, ICE will for the most part no longer arrest and detain pregnant women, postpartum women and women who are nursing. Daniel Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic, 10 July 2021 The state Supreme Court issued a major ruling that limits the use of cash bail to detain defendants who don’t have the money to post bond, as Maura Dolan wrote. David Lauter, Los Angeles Times, 26 Mar. 2021 Defense lawyers told the court that immediately after the two men’s arrests, prosecutors had suggested the government would not seek to detain them. Anchorage Daily News, 12 Apr. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'detain.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of detain

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for detain

Middle English deteynen, from Anglo-French deteign-, stem of detenir, modification of Latin detinēre, from de- + tenēre to hold — more at thin

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Time Traveler for detain

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The first known use of detain was in the 15th century

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Last Updated

22 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Detain.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for detain


de·​tain | \ di-ˈtān How to pronounce detain (audio) \
detained; detaining

Kids Definition of detain

1 : to hold or keep in or as if in prison The suspect was detained by police.
2 : to stop from going on : delay Snow detained our flight.


transitive verb

Legal Definition of detain

1 : to hold or keep in custody or possession property wrongfully detained a juvenile detained in a care facility
2 : to restrain from proceeding detained the driver and asked to see his license


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